You Were Expecting Someone Else 5 (Countdown/TV Action)

(8 comments)

And once again, it's time for the Doctorly engagement with the wide world of ancillary merchandising. When last we left this story, back in June, we were noting that the late 60s comics fit firmly in a specific tradition of British comics, and were as accurate a translation of Doctor Who to that medium as was meaningfully possible.

For both the beginning and end of the Pertwee years, the existing Doctor Who comic strip appeared in the same magazine it did in the Troughton years - TV Comic. At the onset, the comics were very much in the same mould as the late Troughton strips only with a grotesque representation of Jon Pertwee instead of one of Patrick Troughton. They shared the same mind-wrenchingly odd sense of plotting, and the same belonging to a different tradition. At the close they were something different. The manic energy of the Troughton years had faded, but it was replaced with a much more taut sense of how to handle action and suspense.

But the real difference can be spotted just by looking. Here - I've taken a page from both the early and late TV Comic Pertwee strips and put them below. Have a look:


The earlier page, on the left, is a very straightforward grid of individual images. But the later page, on the right, has a considerably more interesting visual style, with oddly shaped panels. You can see, even shrunk down and without knowing what the story is about, that the panel shape gets weird when the aliens show up. You can also see how the round panel is used as a focus, with the other panels forming a sort of starburst around them. You can also see in the panel of the Doctor's face that things like light, shadow, and perspective are being used in the later comic in a way that they weren't in the earlier. In other words, the comic had become considerably more visual. 

To understand how and why that happened, we're going to have to pull back and look at the British comics industry in general again. We've already talked about how the British comics industry is historically based around the anthology magazine in a way that the American comics industry hasn't been since the 1940s or so. What's crucial to understand is that for the most part, this meant that people were following brands of comics more than individual stories. Major magazines would have flagships, certainly - 2000 AD has Judge Dredd, Eagle had Dan Dare, etc. But more important was their general tone. A given magazine couldn't survive by having one good strip and a bunch of filler. Not every strip could be a classic, but any successful magazine had multiple good strips and a fairly consistent tone. 

The big two in the end of the British comics history pool that we care about are, as I've said, Eagle and 2000 AD. Eagle's heyday came and went before Doctor Who, meaning that the deserved "Pop Between Realities, Home in Time for Tea" entry on Dan Dare never really quite had a place to go. 2000 AD doesn't start for another few years, and we'll track that story somewhat intently once it happens. But several other major titles exist, and one of them is TV Century 21, later TV 21.

TV Century 21 was one of the fingers of the Gerry Anderson media empire - a topic that again deserves an entire entry, but won't get one for a while yet. The short form is that Anderson was a television pioneer in the 1960s who invented a way of doing children's action serials with puppets that proved enormously popular, with Thunderbirds being the most famous example. But the other thing that Anderson was a wizard at was cross-promotion. He was one of the first people to really understand how to build children's media as a franchise in which the television show was only part of a larger brand. This approach eventually became standard practice in children's television, reaching its commercial and creative peak with the American cartoon series of the 80s such as Transformers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Masters of the Universe where the TV series was explicitly designed as marketing for a toy line, often introducing characters in the toys first and then creating episodes to explain who they were. 

So TV Century 21 was part of that - an anthology of comic strips based on the popular Gerry Anderson shows and one or two others, including, for a few years, the Daleks (but not Doctor Who). And as one would expect, its branding was tight and innovative even for a British comics anthology, with the strips being presented in the context of a supposedly futuristic newspaper with news stories and clippings of puppet characters in amidst the strips, all of which had a shared universe so as to strengthen the unified brand. It was a work of art.

But the real big gun TV Century 21 had was an artist named Frank Bellamy. Bellamy had come up through Eagle in its latter days, and was, quite simply, one of the best artists ever to grace British comics - a sort of British Neal Adams. Had he been twenty years younger, he would have undoubtedly been among the wave of great British comics artists who jumped to American work along with Dave Gibbons, Alan Davis, and Brian Bolland. Instead he died young in the 70s having never really broken out beyond his native country. But Bellamy was at TV Century 21. 

There are two things that distinguished Bellamy's work over that of his contemporaries. The first was that he could execute the photorealistic art style of American comic strip artists like Alex Raymond and Stan Drake. To wit, look at the Bellamy-drawn Radio Times cover reproduced to the right, and in particular at the effort made in capturing the actual contours of Pertwee's face instead of attempting a caricatured rendition of them as went on in the early TV Comic strips. Bellamy's style was not straight photo-realism, but rather a slightly rougher and more expressionist take on it. This was a far more dynamic and rich approach than was normal for British comics of the time, and was understandably revelatory.
But Bellamy's debt to American comic strips extends well beyond photorealism. He also has a visible debt to the massive full-page comic strips of the early 20th century such as Little Nemo in Slumberland and Krazy Kat. If you've never had the pleasure of reading either of these strips, both are in the public domain and easily found online. But to be brief, what's remarkable about these strips is the degree to which they use the large canvas of the full page to create complex visual structures. Instead of the default grid model of comics in which comics amount to little more than stills from a television show (or, in the older tradition, stills from a theatrical production), these comics created a dynamic look for the page, functioning both as a single image and as an assemblage of individual images. With that in mind, look at this double page spread from a Bellamy-drawn Thunderbirds strip in TV Century 21.



Bellamy, as you can see, was amazing at using the two-page spread to create a strong visual look for the page, as with this one where the long elevated train stretching from the left side of the page across into the right anchors the entire action. Between these two traits, Bellamy had one of the most exciting visual styles on the market.

All of which established, in the early 70s, in part due to the fading popularity of the Anderson shows anchoring the magazine, TV21 folded. Polystyle, who published the competing TV Comic, swept in, grabbed the Anderson licenses, and attempted to launch Countdown, a glossy, high-quality publication. They poached the art director from TV21, and he proceeded to impose a house style of Bellamy clones. Bellamy himself never did any substantial work on Doctor Who besides some scattered bits in the Radio Times, but his style was all over Countdown, and over its successor after it proved too expensive, the not quite as nice but still very pretty TV Action.

The Countdown strips were the creative high point of Doctor Who comics prior to Doctor Who Weekly, and stand up mightily to much of the Marvel UK/Panini output too. As Tat Wood points out, although the Pertwee era Doctor Who was in color, it wasn't until 1976 that color sets became more common than black and white ones. In other words, for all that we've been talking about the glam era of Doctor Who, most of the audience wasn't seeing it in color or getting that aspect of the program. But Countdown was color for everybody, and the lurid gloss of the strips alone makes them important.

They also, in a real sense, understood Doctor Who better than the people making it. In 1972, right as the transition from Countdown to TV Action was happening, they ran a story called The Planet of the Daleks. Not only was it a considerably better Dalek romp than the (unrelated) television story that shares its name, but it includes, in glorious (albeit by that point monochrome) detail, Daleks fighting dinosaurs - the sort of image that Barry Letts would have killed for (at least, right up until he put it on screen via terrible CSO). 

But more to the point, the adherence to a consistent visual style (and the comparative ease of doing so in comics compared to television) meant that the comics, even when the writers weren't nearly as good as the best of what was on television, managed a consistency of vision that the television series doesn't really see until Russell T. Davies implements tone meetings and consciously empowers every department working on the series to be active storytellers. The Bellamy-esque visuals gave the comics a real sense of tone. The combination of photorealist drawing techniques with a scratchy line and lurid color was was tremendously effective. 

Particularly key is the way in which Bellamy-style color worked. The Countdown comics worked with color as if it were just another form of shading. You can see it in the page reproduced to the right, particularly at the bottom where the German's face and the Doctor's face are all one color, and more to the point a wholly non-realistic color. You can also see it, though, in that first panel where the Doctor peers out from behind a rock, with the Doctor and the rock being one color to represent where the light and shading are in the scene. This combination of photorealism and a more representational style - similar to what's involved in combining photorealism with discordant and chaotic page layouts - gives a sense of real excitement to the comics. They seem very visceral and real, but simultaneously very stylized, which is an excellent combination to go for when crafting an action comic. 

If the TV Comic era preceding it was Doctor Who comics that felt exactly like what they were - Doctor Who adapted into a low rent action comic magazine - then the Countdown era is also exactly what it seems like: high production value action comics featuring Doctor Who. And in this regard, they're an important part of the Pertwee era in the same way that the old Dalek annuals are an important part of what the Daleks are. The Pertwee era often tried to be a fast-paced, thrilling action show. Sometimes it even succeeded. But Countdown and TV Action's Doctor Who strips were fast-paced, thrilling action strips every week, always delivered with reliable quality and visual consistency. They are, in other words, the distilled essence of one aspect of the Pertwee era. And that really was't true of the Doctor Who comics before the Countdown/TV Action era.

Unfortunately, TV Action folded a little more than a year after, and Doctor Who returned to TV Comics, providing the right-hand image in that pairing above. Even there the influence of the Countdown era remained, as evidenced by the more dynamic panel structures and composition. But much as Frank Bellamy was an island of artistic importance between the Eagle era and the 2000 AD era of British action/sci-fi comics, the Countdown comics were a brief island of real importance in Doctor Who comics, and it won't be until the 2000 AD era that they really flare into being interesting again. 

Comments

elvwood 5 years, 7 months ago

Ah, Countdown! Probably THE comic of my childhood. It was given to me by my parents as a bribe to get me reading, and (together with some applied reverse psychology) it worked.

You are spot on with the impact of the artistic style, not just in Who but also the title strip. The memory of it remained with me thoroughout my life, long after I forgot the plots of the stories.

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Steve Hogan 5 years, 7 months ago

Interesting stuff. One small fact quibble though: Unlike Transformers or He-man, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles didn't start out as toys. They debuted in a low budget indie comic by a couple of aspiring cartoonists in Massachusetts. (As a kid I used to shop at the comic book store in Northhampton that one of them worked at and I bought his early minicomics.)

Their sudden meteoric success lead to every Tom Dick & Harry with access to a printing press trying to cash in, which in turn lead to what American comic historians refer to as "The black & white glut." which nearly destroyed the industry.

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Philip Sandifer 5 years, 7 months ago

As a basic concept, yes - the four main Turtles, Splinter, Shredder, and April all do come from the Eastman/Laird comics. That said, the cartoon was run on the same Transformers/He-Man plan of releasing a new set of toys and then producing episodes to explain the characters. I'll clarify the sentence, though, since you're right that it's unclear.

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Steve Hogan 5 years, 7 months ago

Definitely the TV show was one big toy commercial,

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Dougie 5 years, 7 months ago

The Turtles were also a bit of a laboured gag about comics by Frank Miller and Chris Claremont so I'd to go back to raving about Countdown! What a classy comic.
TV Action ran a short-lived feature in 72 or 73 that printed b/w stills of Dr Who "monsters" like the Mirebeast and the Mechonoids. They were a thrilling glimpse at a lost world until the Radio Times Tenth Anniversary Special.

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Froborr 4 years, 7 months ago

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Froborr 4 years, 7 months ago

Still reading my way through at the rate of about a month per day...

"This approach eventually became standard practice in children's television, reaching its commercial and creative peak with the American cartoon series of the 80s such as Transformers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Masters of the Universe where the TV series was explicitly designed as marketing for a toy line, often introducing characters in the toys first and then creating episodes to explain who they were."

(Due diligence: The three shows you mention happen to be three of the first four toys I remember owning, and major figures in my childhood.)

I beg to differ with this claim. While commercially successful, creatively those shows were very, very far from the peak of the sub-genre of toy-driven cartoons. Have you tried rewatching any of the three shows (or their contemporaries) you mention lately? Or compared them to the actually good cartoons at the end of the eighties through to today? I don't think it's exactly controversial that the 1970s and early 1980s represent a nadir of American short-form animation, and cheaply made toy-driven marketing campaigns disguised as shows (of which I believe He-Man was the first) were a major factor in making them as bad as they were. Which is not to say it's the sole factor--tight budgets and heavy network censorship didn't help.

I would argue that the cartoon-as-toy-commercial has two creative peaks, in the sense that there are two shows which have ever done it well: The first season of Pokemon (1997-98, IIRC), and the current incarnation of My Little Pony (2010-present).

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daibhid-c 4 years, 7 months ago

I wonder if "using colour as another form of shading" has its origins in duotone? Many British comics in the 70s and 80s had colour covers and centrefolds and then, on the inside pages, a single colour (usually red, but sometimes blue) used as, well, a form of shading. I don't know if the Doctor Who strip was ever done in duotone, but if Bellamy was used to the method it might have influenced his style.

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